Tuesday, 19 December 2006

Penlee lifeboat disaster remembered

Today, in the far west of Cornwall especially, it has been a day for reflecting and remembering. Twentyfive years ago on the evening of 19 December 1981 the lifeboat Solomon Browne stationed at Penlee Point close to Mousehole was launched to go to the rescue of a coaster the Union Star. This ship on its maiden voyage had engine trouble and initially a rescue helicopter was sent to the scene the reported location being east of the Wolf Rock. The weather was about as bad as could be: storm force winds gusting to hurricane strength and whipping waves up to 60 feet high. In fact it was the height of the waves which precluded the helicopter dropping the winchman. All the time the coaster was being driven ever closer to the rocky south coast of the Penwith peninsula. So there was a "shout" for the lifeboat.

The Penlee lifeboat then as now was primarily manned by Mousehole men. Although the crew's complement was eight in fact 12 volunteers turned up that fateful night. One of the volunteers Neil Brockman was sent home by the coxswain because Neil's father Nigel Brockman, the lifeboat's mechanic was also there and the coxswain (William Trevelyan Richards) didn't want
two members of the same family out that night. The recorded conversations between the Union Star, the Solomon Browne and the coastguard centre at Falmouth show that the lifeboat had managed to rescue 4 of the 8 people on board the coaster and could under the worsening conditions have pulled away but tragically tried to get the others off but never made it. A total of 16 lives and 2 boats were lost that night.

The aftermath when the world's media descended on Mousehole was harrowing for relatives and friends, it was very difficult for them to grieve in peace such was the intrusion. Now the present lifeboat is permanently moored at Newlyn and fittingly the coxswain is Neil Brockman. The old lifeboat station at Penlee Point is a memorial to those modest but extraordinary men.

It was some years after that I walked the coast from Porthcurno to Lamorna past Tater Du near where the Union Star was eventually to meet her fate. It was a beautifully quiet still day in September I recall the summers heat just starting to disappear. Almost impossible to believe the tragedy that happened those few years before.

A very good account of the disaster can be read in the Wikipedia encyclopedia and elsewhere on the internet. Michael Sagar-Fenton has written a book "Penlee - The Loss of a Lifeboat".

William Trevelyan Richards was posthumously awarded the RNLI's gold medal. The other seven crew were posthumously awarded the RNLI's bronze medal. They were John Robert Blewett, Nigel Brockman, Charles Thomas Greenhaugh, James Stephen Madron, Kevin Smith, Barrie Robertson Torrie, Gary Lee Wallis.

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